Nautical history – in Arizona? From World War II through Vietnam and the Cold War,  it runs deep.

These Are the Voyages

Written by Tom Marcinko Category: History Issue: December 2016
Group Free
Pin It

A young student stands with her classmates on the deck of a military ship in the 2015 photo, flashing the peace sign at the camera. That ship, now a training vessel for the People’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is a floating relic of a long-ago war that America is still grappling with – and a distant piece of state history recently spotted by veterans just in time for a reunion in Arizona.

Years ago, the ship was called the USS Coconino County. By coincidence, it’s berthed next to its sister ship, once known as the USS Maricopa County. Both vessels supported U.S. military operations in Vietnam through the fall of Saigon in 1975, when they were captured by North Vietnamese forces.

Arizona historian Joe Meehan credits the Coconino’s former executive officer and navigator, Daniel Garrett, with locating the lost warcraft. The crew held a reunion high above sea level in Flagstaff last July. “Meeting with the crew this past summer was one of the highlights of my career,” says Meehan, curator of the Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff. “Finding out on July 1, just two weeks before their last reunion, that both ships were still afloat was phenomenal. It was originally thought that they had been taken out and scuttled and made into reefs.” Garrett, who helped organize the reunion, says he had been seeking the whereabouts of the ships on the Internet. He found them on Google Maps and photos posted from Vietnam.

The Maricopa and Coconino were tank landing ships (or LSTs – “Landing Ships, Tank” in milspeak), among 1,000 such floating workhorses built in the 1940s to land troops, cargo and vehicles onto hostile shores. Maricopa transported American and Australian troops to the Philippines, supported operations off Tokyo during the occupation of Japan, was used as a Marine training ship during the Korean War, and during the 1950s participated in missions from the Caribbean to Greenland. Known as LST-938, it wasn’t named Maricopa County until 1955, when the Navy adopted the custom of naming LSTs after U.S. counties.

The Coconino County participated in campaigns in North Africa, the Mediterranean and Italy, and in the Allied invasion of southern France two months after D-Day. Both ships were among the 50 LSTs recommissioned for service in Vietnam. The cartoon alligator on Coconino’s plaque and uniform patch symbolizes the soggy, tedious and dangerous work of running a war through a bewildering maze of rivers, lakes, dams and streams in and around the Mekong Delta. That patch, photos and ship memorabilia are now on display at the Coconino County Superior Court in Flagstaff.

The ships’ mission was to supply troops with food, ammunition, spare parts, fuel and medical support. Hazards included navigational confusion, poor visibility, bad weather, congested ports, equipment failure and guerrilla attacks that could come any time, day or night. Declassified Navy reports suggest the boredom and danger of the work:

“During 1968 USS COCONINO COUNTY spent 163 days in the combat zone... She conducted 48 beachings [beach landings] and steamed 19,187 miles, delivering 8,026 short tons/11,842 measured tons of cargo, 197 vehicles, 514 personnel, and 1,259,960 gallons of fuel.” During eight weeks in Da Nang harbor, the ship “made one shuttle run to Tan My and 10 to Cua Viet carrying everything from tanks to toilet paper. On September 3 while beached at Cua Viet, USS COCONINO COUNTY was fired upon by enemy artillery. She was forced to retract, returning the following day to complete her offload. On 4 September Typhoon ‘BESS’ struck, hitting the coast of Vietnam between Danang [sic] and Cua Viet... USS COCONINO COUNTY chose to ride out the storm,” and that day rescued stranded utility boat YFU-54.

“We were resupplying the Marine base close to North Vietnam,” just south of the Demilitarized Zone between the north and south, recalls Garrett, now a retired Methodist minister in Virginia. “Mortar shells would be coming into that base periodically. The Marines would be firing back at North Vietnam.” Another time: “I remember standing on the deck watching a destroyer that was out on the South China Sea, and there was a gun emplacement up in North Vietnam that was firing shells at this destroyer.

“We did an amphibious landing in January of 1967 down in the Mekong Delta… We did take some fire from the beach on that one... And in June of ’67 we were actually attacked by a sapper unit that had attached mines to the bottom of the ship and blew a hole in [it],” forcing Coconino to limp to Guam for repairs. During a 2010 crew reunion in Williams – the first such gathering in the county the ship was named for – crew member Chuck Sumstine told the Williams News how the Coconino was damaged in 1967: “We were at Cua Viet. I was riding patrol boat that night when the ship went up around midnight. I stayed out there all night and did nothing but throw grenades. We had a single .30 caliber machine gun with 250 rounds of ammunition and Charlie right across the river from us.”

In 1969 the ship was given to South Vietnam, which renamed it Vűng Tău, after a city that’s now a tourist spot. Maricopa was renamed Da Nang when it also became South Vietnamese property. Today it is known to the Vietnamese People’s Navy as the Trân Khánh Du’, after a general who won a sea battle in 1287.

The Maricopa was used to evacuate refugees during the last days of the war, says Meehan. He first heard of the ship from a Navy historian in those pre-Internet days a quarter of a century ago before his online sleuthing turned it up. Last year he found not only the photo of the schoolchildren touring the Vűng Tău, but used Google Earth to confirm that the Coconino was berthed next to the Maricopa. A photo also exists of Garrett placing a coin under the ship’s mast for luck, “an age-old tradition,” Meehan says.

In 2007 Garrett documented the Coconino’s wartime movements, to help his crew get U.S. government payments for exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange. “‘You were in the Navy, you were not in-country,’” Garrett says they were told when they tried to collect. He wrote a memoir, illustrated with photos, “to basically document that we were up into the rivers.” The nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica is compiling a database to help veterans get compensation for Agent Orange exposure. Neither the Navy nor the Department of Veterans Affairs kept a list of ship movements, according to ProPublica. The Coconino is on its list, but the Maricopa is not.

Meehan continues to research the voyages of the Maricopa and the Coconino. He’s also digging into the history of the USS Arizona – not the ship sunk at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but a Civil War-era merchant steamship seized by the Confederacy in 1862, pressed into blockade-runner duty between New Orleans, and Mobile and Havana, and recaptured by the Union later that year after a six-hour chase. Says Meehan: “Who knew Arizona could be such a nautical state?”

But It’s A Dry Dock

It’s not your typical Sonoran attraction: the heavy-metal conning tower, rudder and diving planes of a nuclear submarine, 65 tons in all. But those parts of the USS Phoenix, which prowled the world’s oceans to play cat-and-mouse with its Soviet counterparts from 1979-1997, are now at the Papago Park Military Reservation.

The nonprofit USS Phoenix (SSN 702) Cold War Monument Foundation hopes to raise about $2 million in the next couple of years to house the Los Angeles-class attack sub’s parts near the Arizona State Veteran Home at Steele Indian School Park, says Peter Lumianski, a director with the foundation and a retired Navy captain.

Chandler engineer Scott Stehle, who served as electronics technician aboard the sub from 1993 until the end of its mission, can’t say exactly where the Phoenix encountered Soviet subs, or how close it got. That information is still classified. “The big weakness of the Soviet submarine fleet was that it was noisier than ours,” Lumianski says. Chuck Luna, the submarine’s navigation electronics technician who now works in IT for The Arizona Republic, recalls the sub’s 1983 round-the-world cruise as no jaunt for claustrophobes: “You have to think about being in a room that’s only six feet tall,” he says.

The sub was the fifth USS Phoenix, and the third to be named after the city. An earlier ship by that name, a cruiser that survived the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, was sold to Argentina in 1951. Renamed the General Belgrano, it lost 323 lives during the 1982 Falklands War when it was sunk by the British submarine Conquerer – the only ship to be sunk in battle with a nuclear sub.